Hearts centre-back John Souttar today spoke out in defence of manager Craig Levein’s tactics and style of play, insisting he preaches a passing game over long balls every day at Riccarton.
The Scotland Under-21 captain stressed that Levein wants the ball kept on the ground and is wrongly portrayed as someone whose teams are set up to be simply physical, aggressive and to shell balls forward.
Addressing the issue in a frank Evening News interview, Souttar explained that Hearts are constantly urged by their manager to pass the ball. He expects that to become more evident next season with the defence more solid and a new hybrid pitch being laid at Tynecastle Park this summer.
“The gaffer is massive on passing the ball,” said Souttar. “First and foremost, you need to be a good side and be solid defensively. There’s no point in passing the ball and being wide open. We had to get that sorted first because we were conceding too many goals earlier in the season. We have improved defensively, although you can always work on these things to get even better.
“The gaffer is always saying to me: ‘Get the ball down and pass it from the back.’ That will be a big thing for us next year. I think the pitch at Tynecastle getting relaid will help in terms of passing the ball quickly – the way the gaffer wants to play.
“The Hearts fans want to see Hearts pass the ball as well. The manager knows there is a time and a place for it. He wants us to pass the ball and he wants us to play football. People don’t really know that but he does.”
Hearts have endured criticism for their play and mediocre form this season. Ahead of tonight’s trip to face Aberdeen at Pittodrie, Souttar acknowledged a lack of consistency has undermined their efforts.
His expectation upon leaving Dundee United for Tynecastle two years ago was that he would regularly challenge for honours in maroon. Supporters felt likewise and the 21-year-old explained that players share their frustrations.
“The fans have every right to think that. We’re the exact same. It’s frustrating for us. A lot of my time at Hearts has been a transition period. We’ve moved from one manager to the next, moving grounds and stuff like that. Next year will be the first really settled year. We’re at our own stadium with a new stand, the gaffer is in place, so next year will be a big year for us.
“When I was at United, we got to two cup finals and a few semis. I came to Hearts thinking that was just going to continue and obviously it hasn’t. We have to make sure next year that we get to the latter stages of cup competitions.
“We were unlucky this year when you see Motherwell, who knocked us out of the Scottish up with a late wonder goal, in the final now. The League Cup was a bit of a disaster at the start of the season. That was well-documented. The league has been difficult, playing away from Tynecastle for a long time. We’ve proved how strong we are there being unbeaten since we went back. I’m sure next year we’ll be better.”
After the assignment in the north east, sixth-placed Hearts embark upon successive home matches against Celtic and Hibs before ending the 2017/18 campaign away at in-form Kilmarnock. Whilst keen to harness as many points as possible from their last four fixtures, there won’t be many regrets in Gorgie when the season draws to a close.
“Everyone thinks the end of this season can be a line in the sand,” continued Souttar. “There shouldn’t be as much toing and froing next season. We’re signing a few players already and I think that will help.
“The fans think the same as us. We aren’t daft. We know it hasn’t been a successful season this time but we just have to reassure them that next year will be different when we’re more settled.”
Aberdeen are in no such position as they try to secure second spot in the Premiership ahead of both Rangers and Hibs. Hearts head up the A90 with only pride at stake.
“It’s a bit of a strange situation because we don’t have much to play for,” said Souttar. “We’ve got to see out the season and finish it well to give us momentum for next season. We know next year is a big year. We’ll have our first pre-season with the gaffer so we’re building for that. The players have to take responsibility as well. We can’t keep blaming outside influences.
“Aberdeen are going to be up for it, aren’t they? They’ve got a big thing to fight for in second place. It’s between three sides. We have to play like we have done against them all season. We’ve done well whenever we’ve played Aberdeen so far so we can’t take our foot off the gas.”
Evidence of the aforementioned defensive resolve instilled by Levein is the fact Aberdeen have failed to score against Hearts in three meetings this season. Two 0-0 draws preceeded the 2-0 win for the Edinburgh club at Tynecastle three weeks ago.
Souttar does not believe that result will have any bearing on tonight’s encounter because of the Pittodrie pitch.
“We have to play well but it’s tough up there. The pitch is horrific and it looks horrendous. I’m not sure it will be a classic. We will need to play well and defend well, like we have done for most of the season,” he stated.
“I don’t think what happened at Tynecastle a few weeks back will have any bearing. I reckon it will be two different games just because of the pitch. We blew Aberdeen away with our passing in the first half at Tynecastle, which is probably one of the few times we’ve done that this season.
“It will be difficult to see a pass on Friday night and the attackers will probably need to adjust their game according to the pitch.”
The passing game should return, though, with Levein and his players seemingly determined to showcase their football going forward.